Another oil-rich country suffering under despotic rule is primed for regime change as early as next month. I happened to meet the would-be king of Equatorial Guinea at Bob’s Big Boy for coffee. I had initially thought him just another deluded soul with some half-baked plan, not at all uncommon in this town. Word of the man and his dream came from my sister-in-law. She‘s an actor and was working a phone-sales job last year when she met Gus. He was smart and charming and a hard worker, and they became friends. Both have moved on from the job, but they recently met for coffee to catch up.
Sitting at a Starbucks, he revealed to her that he was actually from Africa and had appeared in the Olympics four times as a sprinter. He also said he was living in exile and now wanted to return to his small, oil-rich country and assume power. She was concerned about her friend, saying he looked tired and had mumbled something about the CIA and James Carville. It was after this meeting that my sister-in-law called to tell me about him.
The country he mentioned, Equatorial Guinea, turned out, in fact, to be real. I was also surprised to find that an athlete named Gustavo (Gus) Envela had indeed represented it at four separate Olympics. When my sister-in-law identified Envela from a photo as her friend, I called and asked if we could meet. He suggested Bob’s Big Boy.
A quick tour of the State Department‘s Web site revealed Equatorial Guinea to be a country of about the same size and population as Maryland, on the west coast of Africa. As a Spanish colony, the country had one of the highest per capita incomes and literacy rates in Africa. Ceding to mounting pressure from nationalists and the United Nations, Spain granted the country independence in 1968. After a short-lived honeymoon, Equatorial Guinea descended into a mire of violence and poverty under “President for Life” Francisco Macias Nguema. For such a small place, the country now takes up considerable real estate on various human rights Web sites. To make things interesting, a large amount of oil has recently been discovered there.
The 34-year-old Envela strolls purposefully into the Big Boy, movie-star handsome and flashing a warm, engaging smile. Before we can slide into the booth, he is already talking with the excited, slightly conspiratorial tone of a friend with some juicy gossip. Far from the deluded nutter I first imagined, Envela seems smart, highly educated and incredibly likable. Under his arm he is carrying a large manila envelope overflowing with paperwork, from which he periodically produces a document or picture to bolster a point. Eventually he just slides the envelope, containing everything from copies of faxes Envela sent the White House to pictures of him posing with James Carville and superstar runner Carl Lewis, over to me. He tells me to take it home for a few days.
Envela explains that he comes from a prominent family back in Equatorial Guinea. “Between being descendants of King Uganda, having a rich history within the Presbyterian Church, and my dad being sort of a George Washington of diplomacy, our family was referred to as kind of a Kennedy type of family,” he says. Back in 1970 his father had been the country’s second ambassador to the United States. The first had been executed after only a month on the job. When his outspoken father was called to return home, he understandably chose to move his family to America, where they settled in Salem, Oregon.
“You can imagine what it was like to be an African family in Oregon back in the early ‘70s,” Envela says. “But it was either that or Montana.” Envela actually has fond memories of his surrogate hometown, telling how, when he emerged as a promising track star, the community rallied in support of him. “I’ll never forget my second-grade teacher, who used to hold coffee klatches in her home to raise money to get me to the national meets.”
Envela‘s four Olympic appearances seem more a testament to his ambition than to his actual athletic ability. Reading Sports Illustrated as a teen, he noticed a rule that every country, no matter how small, could send at least one athlete to the games.
In a 1979 coup d’etat in Equatorial Guinea, the original murderous president for life had been arrested and executed by his incrementally less-murderous nephew, Obiang. Envela and his father began a letter-writing campaign to both the International Olympic Committee and the new president, Obiang, who, appearing to recognize a much-needed opportunity for some good press, agreed to let the 16-year-old political refugee appear as the country‘s first-ever Olympic athlete. Though he never made it past the initial qualifying heats, Envela’s appearance caused enough of a sensation to warrant a nervous and inspiring trip back to Equatorial Guinea, where he and his father met with Obiang at his palace.
Envela then attended Stanford University on a full scholarship, graduating with a bachelor‘s degree in political science and African-American studies. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1990, and worked various jobs before competing in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He then began working as a law clerk for the District Attorney’s Office and eventually attended Southwestern law school for a year, leaving when his first daughter was born. Working less-than-glorious jobs, Envela increasingly focused on returning to his homeland in some capacity. “I always had this calling of wanting to go back,” he says, “and I‘m dreaming that all these jobs are preparing me for something bigger.”
His introduction to politics came in 1994, when Envela traveled to Washington, D.C. “I flew from L.A. and started passing out some information on Equatorial Guinea I had gotten from Amnesty International. I met with some senators. The initial person was Congressman Tom Lantos, who was the head of the congressional committee on human rights. I started talking to him and got a list of anyone that had an interest in human rights in Africa.
”Eventually, as I got more and more political, people started to remember me and recognize me, and I started to kind of broaden my base. And now, eight years later, I stand before you as someone who looks to be able to, hopefully, help Equatorial Guinea and all Equatorial Guineans, internally and externally, to become the great and beautifully rich country that it is, politically, economically and psychologically.“ Asked how the moment feels to him, he responds, ”Very optimistic. I feel like my steps are being ordered for me. I feel safe. I feel that I’m supposed to be where I am at this very moment in time.“
Equatorial Guinea will have its presidential election on December 15, and Envela considers himself a candidate. It says so on his business card. If the past is any indication, he is a long shot. The current president has remained unchallenged since executing his uncle back in ‘79. Even if the election process were to somehow become legitimate, Envela faces other obstacles. To qualify as a candidate, one must live in Equatorial Guinea and be a registered member of an opposition party. In the past, this combination has not proved a recipe for health and longevity. While Obiang is not the homicidal maniac his predecessor was, he is by no means a peacenik. In 1994, when the then–U.S. ambassador, John Bennett, started talking about human rights, Bennett suddenly received an ”anonymous“ message stating, ”You will go to America as a corpse because the people are fed up with you.“ The U.S. ambassador (currently George M. Staples, reassigned from the Republic of Rwanda) now serves from neighboring Cameroon.
Envela seems undeterred by such technicalities. Leaning close, he mentions that there are rumors of President Obiang having terminal cancer, possibly even AIDS. He also hints that there are external forces at work, alluding to recent correspondence he has had with the CIA and FBI. Handing me his cell phone, Envela plays a message from a man who speaks in purposely vague, spylike terminology, even referring to ”that matter we discussed.“ Envela tells me it is Bobby Pittman, director for African affairs for the National Security Council. He then gives me Pittman’s phone number.
Another name Envela gives me is Dr. Warren Weinstein, from an organization called Africa Global, which describes itself as ”an Africa-focused company whose mission is to provide high-quality services for government and corporate clients.“ In an article last year in The Nation, Africa Global was described as a ”D.C. lobby shop“ and was said to have actually represented Equatorial Guinea‘s second president, Obiang, for a time. When I speak to him on the phone, I ask Dr. Weinstein his opinion on Envela and whether he has any realistic chances. He responds, ”You know, it’s very hard to talk in white or black in such an uncertain universe when there are so many interests. You know, things occur, everything happens in the shadows, and all of a sudden it‘s out there, and where did it come from? But the fact is, in countries like this, phenomena like Gus happen precisely because they are the kind of places they are.“